A sad day for horsemen

State hits finish line as major horse player

Downsizing Maryland Racing

Horse Racing

September 08, 2005|By John Eisenberg

IT'S OFFICIAL. The endless slots debate has killed Maryland as a major horse racing state.

Racing dates are scheduled to be slashed in 2006, especially at Pimlico. There's no guarantee the Preakness will remain in Baltimore beyond next spring. Magna Entertainment Corp., the Canadian firm that owns Laurel and Pimlico, is scaling back its Maryland operation.

It's official. While state politicians have fiddled on the issue in Annapolis, Rome has burned down.

Oh, sure, there will still be thoroughbred racing here. Magna might even achieve a short-term fix with its plan to cut racing days and raise average daily purses to compete with slots-rich tracks in Delaware and West Virginia. Higher purses should attract enough horses to keep things going.

But make no mistake, once you start drastically cutting racing days and hedging on the future, there's no going back.

You're shrinking, lowering your sights, racing for the bottom.

Only the arrival of slots would allow a reversal of course back toward prosperity, but with both sides of the stalemate seemingly disinclined even to bring it up in 2006, an election year, no one should expect an agreement soon, if ever.

Even if slots did come, it would take years to undo the damage caused by the stalemate. The very foundation of Maryland thoroughbred racing has cracked. Horsemen and horses have left the state. Morale and trust have plummeted. The Preakness is circling the drain. And no one is coming to the rescue.

Magna is spinning its new plan, revealed yesterday, as a way to remain viable, but it looks more like the first phase of an exit strategy than a road to recovery.

It would leave Maryland with 120 racing days in 2006 (as opposed to approximately 200 this year), with just 18 days at Pimlico. Historic Old Hilltop will barely be used more than the half-mile track at Timonium.

Fewer dates might make some people appreciate a day at the races more and inspire them to come out, but even if the plan works, Magna is obviously no longer going to invest much in Laurel or Pimlico, understandably preferring to put its money where more potential exists. (It owns 13 tracks in the United States, Canada and Austria.) The Maryland tracks will remain uninspiring.

That grim reality and the reduced supply of racing dates means breeders and horsemen will continue to leave Maryland in search of higher stakes and better conditions, perpetuating the cycle of diminution here.

Meanwhile, Pimlico will effectively become a fair track, the lowest form of racing venue.

The anti-slots lobby, led by House Speaker Michael E. Busch, basically ignored Magna when it began making ominous noises about taking such drastic steps. The lobby seemed to believe Magna was bluffing, trying to hasten an end to the stalemate.

Well, Magna was not bluffing. Yesterday, Magna basically abandoned Pimlico to the scrapheap.

Remember all those starry-eyed plans for making the home of the Preakness shine again? Well, forget it. The track isn't going to be fixed up.

Under Magna's plan, Pimlico is little more than a convenient warehouse for showcasing the Preakness. And Magna isn't even committing to keeping the second jewel of the Triple Crown here.

Thoroughbred racing in Baltimore isn't quite on life support yet, but it's close.

Surprisingly, Magna isn't the main villain in all this. Sure, it has gone back on its pledge to fix things here even without slots, so its word isn't worth much. But it has invested and hemorrhaged millions trying to turn things around. It didn't come here planning to oversee a collapse. It wants the sport to succeed.

The slots stalemate has made that impossible. There's just no way for tracks without slots to compete with a neighboring array of tracks that have them.

No one should blame Magna for finally scaling back and essentially sacrificing Pimlico. The company is just making a cold-hearted, inevitable business call, doing what it has to do.

The state's lawmakers pushed it into action.

Busch, the primary slots obstructionist, doesn't care about horse racing. Its blood now stains his hands and, hopefully, his conscience.

The governor, a racing fan, surely complicated the issue by trying to spread the slots pie in countless ways, and then was unable to present legislation that could serve as grounds for a compromise.

The racing industry itself didn't help matters, bringing to the table its ancient array of warring factions and preconceived notions.

Put it all together and you have a recipe for a political disaster with horrid implications for a sport caught in the middle.

Maybe Magna's drastic action will spur lawmakers to finally budge on slots, but, of course, they'll be concerned about how it looks and what it might mean for their careers. So don't count on it. And hey, it's already too late, anyway.

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